Skip to content

Business culture in Singapore

Singapore is a multiethnic society comprising of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian communities. In most cases, you will encounter Singaporean Chinese as your business counterparts as they form the majority of the population. It is important to adapt to the business culture of the respective partners and this section will offer advice and considerations when dealing with Singaporean associates as local customs have great influence on Singapore’s business style.

Singaporeans are generally open and cosmopolitan in their outlook. They are not likely to take offence if you commit a social faux pas, especially when they understand that you come from a different culture. The general advice would be to do as ‘the Romans when in Rome’ and be courteous at all times. As a general rule avoid discussions about topics like religion, racial issues and politics. A few tips to consider will be provided in the following.

Language

English is the working language while the official languages are Chinese, Malay and Tamil. There is a local vernacular, Singlish, which is essentially English generously peppered with local slang and dialects. 

Business entertainment

When entertaining Malay associates (who are Muslim) avoid conducting business on Fridays or during the Ramadan (the Muslim fasting month). Never serve alcohol or pork. Most Indians do not eat beef as well. The inviting party of a business social event usually picks up the bill. The other party can reciprocate next time around.

Power meals

Business breakfasts are rare in Singapore. Lunch is the preferred meal for business discussions. Spouses are rarely, if ever, invited to these power meals. As long lunches are not uncommon in Singapore it may be wise to avoid scheduling meetings between noon and 2pm.

Punctuality

Singaporeans are normally punctual for their appointments and expects the same with others. Call them if you are unexpectedly late.

Business gifts

Gift giving is a common way of expressing thanks. Small business-related gifts such as a pen with the company logo would be sufficient. Gifts are typically wrapped, presented and received with two hands, and opened after the presenter leaves. Gifts with connotation of severance or cutting, such as scissors, are not appropriate as they symbolize conflict. Letter-openers however are an exception. For the Chinese, the number 4 rhymes with the word for death meaning that it is important not to give anything in a set of four. Clocks are also considered inappropriate gifts, as the Chinese expression for ‘giving clock’ has connotations to death. For your Malay associates, avoid products made from pigskin and alcohol as these goods contravene the laws of Islam. 

Etiquette

There are important differences in doing business in Singapore and the following offers valuable considerations of etiquette when conducting business in Singapore.

When making introductions for the first time and in formal meetings, always use the person’s title and family name followed by his personal name, if he has a Chineese name. If he has a western name like "Peter", he should be introduced in the same way as in the West, i.e. given name before family name. The Malays do not use a family name. They use their own personal name followed by bin (son of) or binti (daughter of) before their father’s personal name. The Indians use their personal name followed by s/o (son of) or d/o (daughter of) and the father’s personal name.
Business cards should be exchanged upon meetings and treated respectfully. Ideally, they should be given and received with both hands. Upon receiving a business card lay it in front of you on the table in accordance with the placement of the people you are having the meeting with. Never write on the business card, put it casually in your back pocket or haphazardly stash it in a folder. Any of these actions can be misconstrued as disrespect.

There is an emphasis on equality of the sexes in Singapore. Women do hold positions of authority in business. Spouses of both sexes do not usually attend business events or functions, unless specially invited.

Although the climate is tropical long-sleeved shirts and ties are still the usual call for men, while smart business wear is recommended for women. Jackets may be worn to formal events.

Office hours in Singapore

Offices: 08.30 to 17.30 Monday to Friday.
Banks: 09.00 to 16.00 Monday to Friday. Some banks are also open on Saturdays and Sundays.
Shops: 10.00 to 22.00 daily